We’re living through the golden age of internet assholes; for these lucky trolls, it’s easier than ever to reach out and harass friends and neighbors and harder for—likely female—victims to seek redress. Hone your bullying skills, and someone might even elect you president. This week, the era’s latest casualty—Kim Weaver, the only Democratic candidate in the race for Iowa’s 4th Congressional district, has dropped out of the race due to harassment.
“Beginning during my 2016 campaign, I have received very alarming acts of intimidation, including death threats,” Weaver wrote in a statement on her Facebook page. “While some may say enduring threats are just a part of running for office, my personal safety has increasingly become a concern.”
The post continues, explaining that Weaver has multiple reasons for leaving the race, including the fact that she would have to quit her full-time job (and potentially lose her health insurance) in order to campaign effectively and her fears that the work of campaigning would prevent her from caring for her ill mother.
Still, there’s no question that, in the weeks leading up to her decision, the campaign had taken a dark turn. In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Weaver traces the death threats to an earlier Register piece that publicized her former job as an internet psychic. (Weaver left the job 10 years before entering public life; the Register was tipped off by an “anonymous package” addressed to their offices, which Weaver’s campaign says was almost certainly sent by her opponent.) After the story was published, Weaver says she was not only inundated with threatening calls and emails, but someone snuck onto her lawn and put up a “For Sale” sign in front of her home. “To me, that sent a message that ‘we want you out of here,'” Weaver tells the Register. It also presumably said that “we know where you live.”
And it wasn’t just the Register exposé. Weaver, who works in the state’s Office of Long-Term Care Ombudsman, which helps prevent elder abuse in nursing homes, has said she suffered workplace retaliation for her bid. After Weaver kicked off her campaign, the office’s funding was slashed by $164,000. Weaver claims a supervisor told her that an unnamed state legislator had admitted to authorizing the cut to punish her for entering the race. She tells the Register she feels personally “guilty” over the cut and has volunteered to step down, if necessary, to prevent her co-workers from losing their jobs. In certain corners of the web, commentators have noted that this aspect of the story, implying government complicity in ending Weaver’s run, is more disturbing than the threats themselves.
While some of this is just politics as usual—any candidate can expect to have embarrassing decisions from his or her past dredged up over the course of a campaign, and giving tarot readings for $3.99 a minute certainly qualifies—concerted workplace retaliation of the kind Weaver describes is not remotely normal or acceptable. Neither is being harassed so heavily that one is forced to drop out.
Weaver’s opponent, the hyper-conservative and incumbent Rep. Steve King, has brushed off Weaver’s account, claiming that “[d]eath threats likely didn’t happen but a fabrication,” continuing the glorious tradition of men calling women crazy and/or liars when they disclose horrible things they’ve endured. But the fact is, King’s assertion isn’t just demeaning; it’s likely wrong. Weaver’s account is credible precisely because threats and harassment are a fact of life for women who seek public office.
In a 2016 study conducted by the InterParliamentary Union, 80 percent of female parliamentarians worldwide reported experiencing “psychological violence”—which is to say, attempts to intimidate them into silence or compliance. 40 percent said they’d received actual threats, including threats of “death, rape, beatings or abduction.” One common tactic was to harass women by threatening to kidnap or harm their children. In June 2016, the Guardian conducted its own social-media analysis, which focused on the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia. The organization screened all the tweets received by selected politicians for “abusive language,” then ran the numbers. There, too, the pattern was clear: Australia’s Julia Gillard received 5,640 abusive tweets, whereas Kevin Rudd received 2,789. Hillary Clinton received 88,838 flagged tweets to Bernie Sanders’ 34,031.
It’s not that men are exempt. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn received far more abuse than Labour colleagues Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall, and even in the US Republican primary, New Jersey Governor and personal Trump punching bag Chris Christie somehow attracted more hostility than either Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. (Worth a mention: though Christie received a higher ratio of abuse to overall Twitter mentions, Carson received the highest number of insults overall, indicating that race is, unsurprisingly, just as significant a factor.) Laura Olin, who served as social media director for Barack Obama in 2012 and advised on the launch of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, acknowledges that “death threats are unfortunately common on presidential campaigns.” And in her experience, they’re not solely confined to female candidates. “I don’t have first-hand knowledge of specific comparative numbers across different campaigns,” she says, “but the Secret Service reported during President Obama’s terms that they saw spikes and overall higher numbers of threats against him versus other candidates and presidents.”
And yet, between men and women, women still receive an elevated level of specifically gendered hostility that makes campaigning or governing as a woman more fraught. One man tweeted at Julia Gillard over 300 times in two years, sending a string of “violent and sexually graphic messages” so abusive that the Guardian couldn’t print them. Compared to that, a few thousand people calling Bernie Sanders or Kevin Rudd “idiots,” which was the most common insult for both men, seems practically civil. Olin adds that even “friends who were staffers on both the Obama 2012 and Hillary 2016 campaigns said that the level of overall vitriol they encountered was far worse on Hillary.” Fittingly, Clinton has reportedly reached out to Weaver with some perspective and to offer her support following her announcement.
Some will dismiss all this as a minor annoyance. Elected representatives are supposed to be tough enough to bear up under public scrutiny and receptive enough to pay attention to sometimes harsh criticism and even outrage from their constituents. Who cares if the social-media staff for one of the world’s most powerful women has to read a few mean tweets?
But the problem is not mean tweets. The problem is that, in the volume and intensity with which they arrive, we’re still imposing a more prohibitive cost on women who are considering a career in public service. When Gabby Giffords survives an attempted assassination, only to be inundated with new death threats for pushing gun control legislation or when Wendy Davis gives an 11-hour filibuster on reproductive rights only to be greeted with random Facebook creeps promising to give her “a .50 [caliber] headache” or when Roberta Lange pisses off some Sanders supporters at a caucus, only to receive messages from strangers telling her that they know where to find her grandchildren—or, hell, even when Tea Party conservative and all-around bad person Christine O’Donnell has her Senate run interrupted by a former one-night stand selling an essay to Gawker about the condition of her pubic hair—what is being expressed is not “anger” or “outrage.” It’s an attempt to shove women out of the arena, to make political engagement so risky that no rational woman would dare attempt it.
And certainly until this year, women, for the most part, haven’t made the attempt. Female candidates win a surprising number of the races they enter—they’ve just been, historically, much, much less likely to run for office. Hostility and harassment play a measurable role in keeping them away. In one study, women were nearly twice as likely as men to be deterred from running by fears of “potentially having to engage in a negative campaign;” 38 percent of women also feared “loss of privacy,” as compared to only 29 percent of men. (Again: Someone sold an essay about Christine O’Donnell’s pubic hair to the internet. This is not an unfounded phobia.) Plenty of experts have opined on this so-called “ambition gap,” more or less advising women to suck it up and run anyway. But women’s fears aren’t the result of their innate shyness or deference. Women believe they have more to lose during a campaign because they do. And those entirely rational fears get worse every time they see another woman savaged for daring to play the game.
We can never have a government that genuinely represents women if women are shamed or harmed for trying to represent us. Which brings us back to Kim Weaver, who is having an almost stereotypically “womanly” reaction to her harassment—citing her responsibility to her family and her co-workers, apologizing and telling the world she feels “guilty” for workplace intimidation that was not her fault—and who now stands as a new kind of cautionary tale in an era where anonymous threats are easier to make than ever.
“In 15 years of being in Democratic politics, I’ve never heard of a candidate for Congress or another sub-presidential office being forced to drop out because of the magnitude of credible threats to their safety,” Olin told me. “I hope the Weaver case doesn’t represent the start of a trend.”
But if it does, who would be surprised? Women are running for office in record numbers. The laws of backlash dictate that the attempts to shove them back out of the arena, and into silence, will likely get nastier than ever—both to punish the women in question for running and to spook other women, who may be considering their own chances. Our work is to score victories that’ll outweigh the horror stories, so that, over time, more and more of those women will make it through the gauntlet and into the public eye.